Last night I went with friends to the local RSA (Returned Services Association) to watch the opening game of the Bledisloe Cup. I hadn’t intended to go there, even though I had been talking about it for all of the six years I’ve lived in Titahi Bay.
In fact, I hadn’t intended to go out at all as the game was in Sydney (which is two hours – and twenty years – behind New Zealand), so the All Blacks weren’t taking on the Wallabies until 10:05pm (which is after the bedtime imposed by my present job).
But my friends were keen and even though I was on a roll with my writing, I decided to get away from the screen and be sociable… especially as we were meeting up for beers and dice beforehand.
I’m rather fond of Zilch! I used to play it a lot in Christchurch in the ’80s. It has a gambling thrill as you chose whether to bank your score or risk all on a throw. There’s nothing like trying to feel what is in the dice, shaking them in time to the music, hearing the six dice rattle across the table, watching the last one spin, willing it to go the way you want.
There were four of us playing, all rather competitive gamers, so there was plenty of commentary as players tried to get each other to blow their throw.
Throwing badly from the start I decided to bank low and keep scoring.
To use a rugby analogy, I was taking every penalty kick offered rather going for the heroic try.
I took a bit of flak for this inglorious strategy. However, as kick-off time for the rugby approached I had got myself within cooee of the bolters who had used up all of their good luck.
My final throw was my best and I was just as shocked as everyone else to win.
With ten minutes to kick-off we were off to ‘the Flying Jug’ (it’s actually called the Mariner. Titai, as the locals call Titahi Bay, is a sea-side community with a colourful past).
Most unusual for a Saturday night the car park was chocka and groups of people were milling about, smoking in circles. I could hear a band playing inside but I couldn’t imagine that they wouldn’t be showing the rugby so we filed in.
It didn’t seem the usual pub crowd and there were no seats anywhere. Very unusal. The band was groovy, but not too loud. Before approaching the bar we had a peek in the side lounge…it was also packed.
I felt a bit self-conscious but put it down to paranoia born of pre-loading.
That’s when I saw the cake in the shape of a bikini-clad woman with enormous nipples poking through.
I got a feeling just like I had late one Sunday night many years ago when, after several long days working in the pits at the Aussie V8 Supercars at Pukekohe, I had gone with a few workmates to find a pub that was open near TVNZ (I used to be a TV soundman). As it was after 9pm on a Sunday all the usual options were closed. We ended up finding one we had never been to before.
We got our beers and sat down, oblivious to the surroundings due to exhilaration and over-tiredness (and several ‘travellers’ on the bus back to Auckland).
The six of us were getting sideways looks. That’s when I clicked. My female colleagues were the only women in the bar. We had stumbled into gay night and were making the regulars uncomfortable.
Likewise, last night after looking around I realised we were the only pakeha (white-fullahs) in the place. Not entirely unusual as we live in the heart of Ngati Toa territory. It’s a good chunk of what I like about living here. But there was something else going on and the spread laid out on the tables behind the bawdy cake confirmed it.
I suggested we head for the RSA, and as we filed back out I saw the photo of the uncle who the party was for.
As I pushed through the door I read the ‘Closed for Private Function’ sign.
I’ve been to a various RSAs around the country, usually in the company of former soldiers I was working with at the time (SAS guys who fought in Vietnam or Malaya like directing TV, so it seems) – they’re a good place to get a feed and a pint when you’re in the wops and there’s little else to be had.
You don’t have to have served in the armed forces, but you need a member to sign you in. And not being an aggressive nation, the stock of old soldiers is dying off so civilians have been encouraged to join.
It’s a funny building: old lounge bar style inside with a faux Spanish ‘el rancho’ makeover outside (plaster arches and heavily-trowelled exterior surfaces).
I’ve stood outside it for two ANZAC Day Dawn Services, each time with my daughter.
The first was three years ago. My girl was two years-old, waking early, as two-year olds do, so I took the opportunity to give her mother a sleep-in while I attended my first Dawn Service.
While I’m pretty liberal and open-minded about most things, I’m a staunch pacifist at heart so a lot of what gets said at these services riles the pacifist (and historian) in me. That said, I’m no puritan. I’m open to experiencing things I don’t necessarily agree with. And there’s nowt wrong with remembering the dead.
As I pushed my daughter in her pram along the beach it was still dark and a gentle rain was falling through the mist. I told her where we going: everything is new and exciting to a two year-old, even when they have limited comprehension. In the distance behind me I could hear the distinctive thunk thunk thunk of Huey’s hugging the coast on their way to fly-overs at the various ceremonies around Wellington.
ANZAC Day is the busiest day for the NZ Armed Forces, and I am both glad and proud of that.
Assuming they would go over the top of us, I stopped and turned the pram around to watch them approach from the Kapiti Coast. With the low mist we would get a very close fly-over. I got out my camera and switched it to night shot. Then, the chopper noise stopped.
No one knows exactly what happened, but the Air Force lost an aging Iroquois and three flight officers that day. it was an important day but they shouldn’t have been flying.
Three years later my girl had started school and was well aware about the meaning of ANZAC Day, so she lobbied hard to attend the Dawn Service. I felt I had ‘done’ ANZAC Day but her best friend, the boy next door, wanted to go, too, so we all walked down to listen to the speeches about sacrifice and freedom, all as one listening to the bugle wobble through the Last Post (at least it was live, so many have to play recordings these days).
It was great to see the old soldiers (and their descendents) march up the main street and watch the volleys of rifle fire make people cover their ears.
Last night we got inside the RSA just as the teams were about to take the field in Australia. And although there was only about a dozen people there, the screen and sound was way better than the pub.
We got our beers (after being instructed to get our own glasses from the fridge by the frosty bar maid) and took up pews at the leaner by the wall which was covered with medals and memorabilia. As the teams lined up for the national anthems I looked at the medals.
Titai has a strong military connection. The pub we had gate-crashed is in the middle of what was in WWII a camp of 1,500 US Marines. They rested here after Guadalcanal, practiced landings for Tarawa and Iwo Jima on the beach where my daughter plays, and introduced the locals to big swing bands (amongst other things).
After the war, a lot of de-mobbed NZ soldiers who had been fighting the Nazis in Europe made their homes in Titai (the Marines had been here because the NZ forces wanted to head back to defend their homeland when the Japanese entered the war).
The sound of our national anthem pulled my attention away from the old medals on the wall, and I wondered if I should stand in respect.
I looked around the room. The only people standing were the two guys playing pool.
Always in two minds I felt both proud and sad.
Then it was time for the haka.
And it was good one, too. Rousing and passionate. What else is there like it in the world of sport and popular culture?
The sound was beautiful, too, which isn’t always the case outside NZ where overseas broadcasters often fail to cover the audio with enough mics. I have been out in the middle of the pitch on many occasions, cowering with a fluffy mic. It’s an awesome experience. The audience deserves to feel the full power of the challenge being laid down and not just see close-ups of big men pulling funny faces.
The All Black haka had added meaning for me in that near-empty room last night as it was composed by the great Ngati Toa (“brave men”) chief, Te Rauparaha, who brought his people to settle here after taking a hiding in the Musket Wars.
And it wasn’t just me. The punters who had just ignored the national anthem cheered and clapped the haka.
It felt great to be in the RSA.
If you expected this post to be a report on the game, I hope you’re not disappointed.
Needless-to-say, the ABs won well (as they were expected to). The new players excelled and the young kicker with so much on his shoulders after he replaced the injured best-player-in-the-world had a wonderful game full of aggression, cleverness and luck, even though he hit the posts twice (three times if you count the one that rebounded down onto the cross-bar).
When the Marines left Titahi Bay they gifted their Recreation Hall to the locals who turned it into a successful Repertory Theatre where I once took my young girl to see a terrific (and, for her, terrifying) production of Jack & the Beanstalk.
It was closed last year and condemned due to water damage. There is a strong lobby to save this last relic of history.
The Marines dumped all the equipment they couldn’t take with them in a big pit; jeeps, machinery, clothing, utensils and all. It was hard for the locals to see such wastage after so many years of war-time rations. Apparently the Marines guarding the pit were understanding of the situation and turned a blind eye to those taking what was useful.
We lose so much when we discard the past, risk it all on a gamble for future glory.
You never know which way the dice will fall. Will the kick go through or is it best to give it to the forwards to monster it over… or maybe spin it to the backs to fly into the corner?
Te Rauparaha took a gamble leading his wounded people to the area I now live. But he smashed the local iwi and became supreme, for a time, composing the words of his famous haka after hiding in a pit from an enemy who would kill him if he was uncovered.
Nearly two centuries later, those battles are long over but his words are recognized and repeated around the world.
I have seen many different haka over the years. I have received the challenge and even laid it down. It’s something you can’t be half-arsed about (especially if you’re a pasty-skinned pakeha like me).
You have to feel the spirit and the strength, believe in your right to be there, let those you are facing know you have something worth protecting, that they must prepare themselves to face you.
A sideways look can be a threat or a sign of fear, or merely an indication that you missed the sign on the door.
It’s all good, as they say.
I think about what the Marines buried in that pit: what is sitting in the dirt of Titahi Bay.
It’s just down the road from here. I would love to dig it up.